The first British telephone directory was published on 15 January 1880. Prior to that, finding places and businesses was done only via word of mouth and actually walking around. Needless to say, we have come a long way in how we find places since 1880… or have we? Sure, we have the Internet and Google, Amazon, OpenRice and TripAdvisor now, but how do we really find many of the products, places and businesses we are looking for? How do we get trustworthy and relevant recommendations?
It turns out word of mouth is still very much the most effective way we have for discovering most things – 140 years later. Word of mouth is a significant channel for discovering brands, products and services – not just for brick-and-mortar places. A recent survey conducted by GlobalWebIndex shows that word of mouth is the source of discovery between 26% and 38% of the time, depending on generation. More importantly, the same article cites that 62% of marketing executives claim word of mouth is the most effective form of marketing. Why is this the case?
Let us think about it. How do we find new places? Imagine you are looking for a new dentist (for whatever reason: you just moved to a new town; you had a falling out with your old dentist; or any other reason). You start by doing a Google search. You get 30+ results back in your nearby vicinity. Each of them has a handful of reviews (some more, some less) and each of them has an average of around 4 stars. You then go through the reviewers text and look at pictures (if there are any), and, after some time and effort, you make your best guess and hope for the best. Alternatively, you ask your friends and family for a recommendation, and you go feeling quite safe. It is a trustworthy and relevant recommendation .
The above scenario is one in which you are actively looking for a business. What about how we discover new must-go places that are fun or serve fantastic food or have great products? It would seem likely that we would discover these places online via curated recommendations on social media – after all we spend so much time online on social media platforms. However, research conducted by the Keller Fay Group finds that only 7 percent of word of mouth happens online (via social media, blogs, email and chat rooms). Most of what we discover happens offline via word of mouth.
Whether we are actively seeking something or passively discovering what our friends have found, we still tend to rely on word of mouth despite 140 years of technology advancement.
In his book, Contagious, Jonah Berger explains that it is not that online platforms are ineffective, but that messages do not necessarily spread more pervasively online than offline – and actually statistically they spread less frequently online. He further explains that regardless of online or offline, the effectiveness of word of mouth is determined by how likely someone would tell others about what they seen, heard or read – emphasizing that it is the contagiousness of the message itself and not who gave the message.
Jonah offers two reasons for why word of mouth is more effective than traditional advertising. The first is that it is more persuasive. Our friends, who spread the word of mouth to us, tend to be more objective and candid and therefore more trustworthy. Secondly, word of mouth is more targeted. It is naturally filtered for relevance and directed towards an interested audience.
Whether we are actively looking for something or someone is introducing something to us, we want trustworthy and relevant recommendations. To elaborate, trustworthy recommendations are recommendations that are authentic and objective, and objectivity requires a knowledge of comparables or alternatives. For example, if someone recommended a camera to me, I would want to know that the person is not getting paid for recommending the camera. In other words, it needs to be an authentic recommendation. I also want to know that this person knows about all the comparable cameras available on the market, and therefore is recommending the best and most appropriate one for me, which leads us to relevance.
Relevance means that the recommended products or services are appropriate for the recipient of the recommendation – are aligned with his or her needs, interests, values and lifestyle – and, ideally, meet the specific needs of the recipient. This means that the recommender should like the same things the recipient likes, or should know what the recipient wants and values. Taking the camera recommendation further, I would expect someone recommending a camera to me to filter out from the universe of cameras those that are obviously not my style – like HelloKitty cameras, disposable cameras, cameras designed for scuba diving, and numerous other very worthy but inappropriate cameras for me. This would be the least I expect from a relevant recommendation.
If asked specifically the kind of camera I would like, my custom requirements would be a camera that takes high quality photographs with a full-frame sensor, has a high speed lens with autofocus, capable of manual and auto shutter and aperture settings, and small enough to travel with. I would then want to know my options fitting these criteria and their prices. My choice would be a balance between price, quality and features.
Let us take a look at the popular online channels for finding recommendations. A social discovery platform is typically one where a user follows a key opinion leader (KOL) to get recommendations pushed to him or her. Because the user chooses whom to follow, there is a natural psychographic alignment; the KOL’s values, interests and lifestyle matches those of the follower. This alignment makes recommendations from the KOL more relevant to the follower. However, the push-based usage of the platform makes getting relevant recommendations when you want them difficult. Further, while the KOL is expected to have a good breadth of knowledge in the field of his or her expertise, the push-based recommendations do not generally give the follower transparency in the available options. In terms of authenticity, it depends on the KOL. KOLs are subject to conflicts of interest with marketers paying them to endorse products. Consumers, today, tend to use search/ratings platforms to find what they are looking for, and then use social platforms to look at pictures from friends for validation. Social platforms are not generally used to find products and services.
Search/ratings platforms are currently the most popular platforms for finding recommendations. They provide a comprehensive list of all places or products matching the user’s search string with the results ordered by the aggregation of customers’ ratings. The good thing about these platforms is that the ratings and reviews are user-generated content (UGC). UGC are generally more trustworthy because users should be objective. However, the aggregation of ratings that search/ratings platforms adopt to rank their results does not align with the psychographics of the searcher, and, moreover, exposes these platforms to a lot of false reviews. Further, providing users with a comprehensive list with unaligned ratings inundates users with too much information, and requires them to spend time and effort to research (through looking at social platforms).
An online platform that is growing in popularity for getting recommendations is community forums. Like search/ratings platforms, community forums have user-generated content, but, unlike search/ratings platforms, the recommendations in community platforms are naturally aligned psychographically. Users join communities in which the interests, values and lifestyles of the members match their own. By having a community of like-minded users, members are effectively accessing a pool of recommendation providers that have already filtered the relevant recommendations. The pathways, through which they have likely learned of the service, product or place, whether they be through social platforms, word of mouth, or having actual experience, would naturally filter the recommendation for relevance. Further, because community forums are designed for dialogue, community members can ask for bespoke recommendations in real-time.
Community forums are considered trustworthy as members are less subject to conflicts of interest, and they can be removed from communities if deemed dishonest by the moderators. Members seeking recommendations can also get sufficient coverage because of the many members within a community. As opposed to having a single person or KOL providing recommendations, users now have access to multiple sources of recommendations.
Community forums address many of the issues inherent in other online recommendation channels, but they have not been as well-adopted as search/ratings platforms for recommendations. This is because to date community forums have been designed around general discussions and not for recommendations and search.
The Bumping App is designed around the benefits of community forums with a focus on providing a platform for community members to ask and search for and get trustworthy and relevant recommendations. It will change the way you discover the world. Take a look for yourself.
Berger, Jonah. Contagious: Why Things Catch On (p. 11). Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.
Why Word-of-Mouth Marketing is Crucial for a Winning Brand Strategy, globalwebindex, Nov 6th 2018, https://blog.globalwebindex.com/chart-of-the-week/word-of-mouth-marketing/